Digging Data the IDV Way: A Balanced Information Architecture
Creating effective data visualizations is a balancing act. How much information is too much; too little? In a constantly evolving effort to get it just right, we try to stay between the equally unappealing extremes of tossing it all onto the screen at once and burying it all in click-heavy rabbit holes. I’ve tried both. The former is unusable and the latter is maddening. At IDV, we’re always getting requests that would push us close to those poles. The art now lies in communicating the benefits of a balanced information architecture and the smooth workflow that results. Here it is…
A 4-tiered workflow for displaying and accessing information visually has evolved at IDV. It reflects the decision-making thread we make all the time: general to very specific then back. They are:
- Shallow Digging
- Active Selection
- Deep Diving
Thematic mapping! The At-A-Glance level of data exploration is the first slice of data exploration and provides the user a set of map features that are visually coded to represent some data value or values with the goal of answering the question, "how am I doing?". There are tremendous options here, but take the green-yellow-red traffic light metaphor as an example. Thematically color-shading hundreds of wells in a gas field based upon their current performance provides, within a split second, an impression for mountains of data. Getting the same impression from a spreadsheet might require blurring your eyes and turning off scientific notation -a method for which I at least partially credit my wife Danielle’s initial interest in me.
Also, it’s pretty. Done well, a thematic visualization is beautiful -even if it is showing some terrible news. Thematic mapping deserves more than a paragraph here, but for now it’s just a slice of the pie…
Tooltip mania. Have you ever used an online map that was so loaded with permanently-labeled data points that it looked like a shrub? Worse yet, there are still plenty of ArcIMS applications out there that generate static maps with the data points as embedded blips in the resulting raster image with no hope of individual interaction. Both are bummers. The over-labeled map is unusable and the inactive point-of-interest map is passive.
Users navigate by scent and the tooltip (or callout) gives them just-the-right-sized clue. It asks, ‘tell me a little bit about yourself’ to map features that have been moused-over, and shows a quick snippet of data (no more than three fields). The tooltip should appear almost immediately on hover and go away when the mouse does. Don’t try to cram too much into the tooltip, really it’s just an active, responsive labeling feature -but a powerful one at that.
The tooltip is the duck in the game of duck, duck, GOOSE!
This is the goose. The user has a sense of the overall picture, has sniffed around, and found something worth investigating. Within IDV’s Visual Fusion Interface, this is usually presented in a dedicated Details panel. Just about anything goes here: tables, charts, images, video, schematics, paragraphs… Here, the user may be presented with some options to really dig into the attributes of that feature.
This is the springboard from which the user launches some other highly specialized tool, document, or portal page. This can be clicking on a homepage button or launching a logistical planning application or accessing some asset-specific media.
The goal is to provide an intuitive information architecture where the user can comfortably and visually explore information at whatever level of detail they require.